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Georgia football defense still has potential heading into 2022
No one is expecting Georgia’s defense to be as good as it was a season ago. You can understand why, with five first-round picks from the unit now in the NFL, Nakobe Dean playing for the Philadelphia Eagles and Dan Lanning now working as the head coach at Oregon.
Related: ESPN’s David Pollack speaks candidly about UGA defense
With all that lost talent, it’s natural for there to be skeptics about the Bulldogs entering the 2022 season. Many have circled Alabama and Ohio State as the National Champion favorites entering this season. In part it’s because of what they return on offense in quarterbacks Bryce Young and CJ Stroud.
Georgia has built its identity through defense in recent years. When that unit isn’t seen as a fully operational Death Star, there is going to be some skepticism about the ceiling of this team. Even with as much upside that this offense, which returns quarterback Stetson Bennett and offensive coordinator Todd Monken, posses.
The Bulldogs have a ton of stars to replace at all levels of the defense. But the talent level is still as high as any defense in the country. Jalen Carter and Kelee Ringo were named Preseason First-Team All-Americans. Edge rushers Nolan Smith and Robert Beal are primed for bigger seasons and Chris Smith is back giving Georgia strong leadership in the secondary.
Of course the real success of this defense will be determined by the young players who were biding their time behind the stars of last year. Guys such as Zion Logue, Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Kamari Lassiter who seem to be stepping into bigger roles.
How those guys play will determine the overall success of the defense. No one is expecting them to be Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean and Derion Kendrick this year. But how they go about replacing those Georgia stars will say a lot about the overall culture that Georgia has built.
“It’s something we’ve worked really continuously (at),” Kirby Smart said in a recent interview with Crain & Company. “We’re intentional about the way we work at it. We have a lot of exercises to help the older players, to help the younger players, to get buy-in.”
Related: Kirby Smart on Georgia football repeating as National Champions: ‘(You’re) trying to get better for the next one’
Georgia has recruited as well as anyone in recent seasons. Consider its 2022 signing class saw them sign five 5-star prospects, all of them on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs also brought in another three top-100 defensive players. Recruiting has been perhaps the key tenet in Smart’s program, making sure the cupboards are overflowing with talent.
Expecting those players to step in and contribute right away isn’t realistic. But how quickly those players adapt to Georgia will play a part in how soon they see the field. The Bulldogs had 18 members of their 30-man class enroll early, giving them a jump start on understanding the Georgia Way.
Linebacker Jalon Walker, defensive end Mykel Williams and cornerback Daylen Everette all used this spring to get a better understanding what is needed to contribute at Georgia.
Of course, this defense might best be defined by those who bypassed the NFL and stayed at Georgia. Nolan Smith, Chris Smith and Robert Beal were among those who elected to return an extra year.
Having the kind of institutional knowledge that they do is going to be key for such a young defense. Not just about what it takes to win in Jacksonville, Fla., against Florida or what Smart expects during practice.
But how to lead and guide the other less experienced members of this defense.
“That really helps your culture because more guys want to do that,” Smart said. “But we wouldn’t have great culture here if we didn’t have a great staff, and we’ve got a tremendous staff here that works tirelessly to make sure the culture’s right.”
Georgia’s defensive staff did have to replace two key members in Lanning and defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae. To do so, Georgia once again bet on its own culture in promoting Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp to serve as co-defensive coordinators. Schumann is Georgia’s longest-tenured assistant and knows more than anyone about what Georgia wants to be on defense.
The Bulldogs won it all last season because of their culture. The connectivity, the mental toughness and of course the overwhelming talent.
If Georgia is going to repeat this season, the Bulldogs are going to need to rely on that culture once again. No team has repeated as champions in the College Football Playoff and Georgia will look to be the first team to do so while also having to replace 15 draft picks and a defensive coordinator.